“Ustahmet Çeliği,” Acı Duman, Bütün Öyküleri I (1999). Istanbul,
• USTAHMET STEEL
From 'TALES of the TAURUS', Bogazici Yayinlari, 2006
“Ustahmet Çeliği,” Acı Duman, Bütün Öyküleri I (1999). Istanbul, Cumhuriyet Kitapları, pp. 239-247.
...A single-seater F-84 type reconnaissance plane took off from Incirlik Airbase and swooped low over the hills towards the upper Taurus range. It slipped westward through the Gülek pass and appeared over Silifke. The aircraft’s surface was here and there a flat light green, here and there dirty brown—like the spit of a grasshopper. Resembling a giant goby whale, it flew with its frightening dark mouth wide open, sucking in the air.
Veering upward over Silifke and climbing northwards, it swung around a remote jagged mountain peak. It then took wing eastward over another mountain covered in virgin snow and plunged into a blue gap among pure white clusters of cloud. Vanishing as a tiny speck, it reappeared farther to the north, emerging over another mountain peak and growing ever larger. It relinquished itself to the wild gusts of the wind. The sound of the engines rose to an invisible roar, reverberating again and again against the mountainsides. At a speed reducing time and distance to naught, it slid into the depths of a darkened vale. Past mountains densely carpeted with forests it flew. Sharp, craggy mountains and rocky pinnacles forced it about in swerving curves. Then leaving the mountains behind, the aircraft swept toward the plain. It was now over the forests of Tarsus.
The deep green foliage of orange groves and countless huge clusters of eucalyptus passed beneath—no different from a greenish haze of smoke. As swift as shadows the vague and fading colors of the distant earth slipped away below the aircraft with each passing second.
Gliding southward, the plane could soon be seen over the shimmering sea sparkling in the winter sun. From there to the west and from westward to northward, it curved across mountain ridges covered with myrtle. Passing from one season to another, it swept the sharp jagged peaks of the mountains. Only minutes ago it had been flying over the blues of the sea and the greens of the coast, and now it was over the snow-clad Bolkars. It looked down upon naked peaks buried deep in snow with patches of glaciers upon them, barren of trees. Like white lava, the snow had cascaded down the slopes into the depths below. The higher the mountains, the more defiantly the plane revved its engines. Coughing out black balls of smoke, it climbed ever skyward. From the highest point it could reach, it plunged straight downward. It dove into seemingly bottomless ravines. It looked no different from a falcon gliding on folded wings. Suddenly swerving its nose upward at the very last minute, it would rise straight back up with deafening blasts. There was a warbling at the tips of the steel wings as they split and slit the air, whistling in a storm of speed. Now and then it would startle the sky—as if the very heavens were trembling. As if it were in a dalliance with the sky. Explosive bursts from the rear of the plane mingled with each and every sound issuing from the surface of the earth. The plane dipped and rose as if yearning to spy and capture every minute detail of the mountains and the gorges. It was caught up in a childish exhilaration of emoting moans and groans from the timeless mountains of the Taurus, now washed free of clouds and gleaming crystal clear under the winter sun. Despite the exhilaration experienced in the plane, down below a dull and monotonous existence continued. In the midst of the forests that were disappearing slowly—bite by bite—nestled the poor, one-story domiciles of the peasants, neglected as if deserted, each its own poor and bitter outcry. Paths between the fields and gardens wound pokily down to the bank of a brook, ending in the bosom of a gorge shaded by forest. The trees were like a blanket concealing the never-ending poverty of the peasants’ houses. At the skirts of a snow-white mountain ahead, the gradually thawing and darkening fields displayed a flock of sheep and plowing farmers in silent solitude. What remained a mystery for the plane now was not what lay above, but what lay below.
The plane glided towards two mountains which stood further north, so close that they were almost touching one another. Between the two mountains was only a narrow gap. And their profiles formed cliffs plunging steeply downward to unseen depths. At the speed of an arrow the plane headed towards that gap. Turning its nose upward at the very last moment, it gunned its powerful engines full speed ahead. Burdened by nothing other than its own weight, the wingtips of the plane trembled violently in the ascent. It wasn’t long then before the left wing struck the rock and the plane spun into a rapid descent. And from behind the forked fingers of those two mountains there echoed a massive explosion. Jet black plumes of smoke rose from behind the rock walls. The rock and the mountains trembled with the explosion. Shivering, the trees cast down their burdens of snow. The sound echoed from mountain to mountain, through gorge after gorge. Then silence enveloped all. Everything was wrapped in that silence of nature known from genesis onward.
* * *
The villagers were the first to reach the scene of the crash. Rushing out of their homes, they gazed in the direction of the crash, towards the crest of Kalegediği, where black plumes of smoke were rising. Then donning their snowshoes, they quickly set out towards Kalegediği. The high mountains there were nearly inaccessible. It was hard enough to climb up even in summer, let alone in the snows of winter. Those confident in their strong healthy feet and legs walked on. Those who lacked self-confidence turned back. The sky may have been clear and sunny, but there was a chilling frost. Despite a thousand and one hindrances, they somehow arrived at Kalegediği. They were dressed in dark, heavy, full-gathered breeches. They appeared short and stocky, with beards or stubble. There were some nine or ten of them.
Not long afterwards a helicopter appeared in the distance. It came from behind the mountains. It approached with a great racket, beating the air with its long wide blades. Circling a while over Kalegediği, it descended towards a clearing free of shrub, about the size of a circular threshing floor. Its blades flashing in the air, it touched down gently, slowly swirling and whirling the snow from its landing site. The door opened. Five people emerged. Immediately they raised the furry collars of their coats. Because it was biting cold.
The one with a darker complexion—like sun-dried wheat—was the interpreter. The other four were Americans. They were dressed in grass-green and wearing furry parkas, with melon-colored caps on their heads and flying goggles with tiny square black lenses that hid their eyes. The commander was a doctor.
The villagers, in the meantime having kindled a fire in a hollow to warm themselves, now rushed towards the helicopter. They looked quite shriveled and shrunken by the piercing mountain cold—as if they were the survivors to be rescued.
First of all, the interpreter asked the villagers about the pilot of the crashed plane. Was the pilot dead, or alive, or was he injured? If injured, where was he? The villagers' answers were all short and negative, for they had seen nothing even resembling a pilot or a human being. The interpreter briefly related the situation to the Americans. There was no sign of sorrow on the faces of the Americans. They shed no tears nor seemed to grieve at the loss of their comrade and the plane. They were large men, with big feet. Four of them, moreover, were wearing huge climbing boots with raised heels, and spikes on the soles. They had brought with them all the tools and equipment necessary for a climber: raincoats, oilcloth, cable for climbing and lifting, hammers, hooks, spikes, wire, picks and shovels, a compass, devices for audio-video recording and binoculars.
They saw the burnt, jet black wreckage of the aircraft as soon as they passed over a crest scattered with age-old pines. Kalegediği towered just over their heads. With a history dating way back to Byzantine times—to the era of Emperor Justinian—the fortress was a historical monument. It had been built of massive dressed masonry, each stone at least one and a half or two meters in length and breadth. With the technology of nearly two millennia ago, who could say how they had carried those stones to that rocky mountain summit and built that castle? A castle that for hundreds and hundreds of years had withstood every kind of cold, of snow and the burning sun of the Taurus, a giant castle of stone in which wild grasses now grew. Over the long years it had stood idle, though, it seems it had not forgotten its duty to defend and protect and had therefore brought down this foreign plane. The plane, outfitted with the subtlest state-of-the-art devices, had miscalculated by a millimeter, struck the cliff, and was now nothing more than debris at the foot of the castle, hundreds and thousands of fragments scattered across the rocks.
The left and right landing gear of the plane had been thrown to opposite sides. The tubby round black wheels pointed skyward. Those wheels looked like dark swollen growths on the spotlessly gleaming crystalline snow. Other parts of the plane were scattered about over hundreds of meters, some fallen down the cliffs and others marked by deep hollows in the snow. The sturdy aluminum-alloy fuselage of the plane, the victim of its own incredible speed, had been kneaded like dough when it struck the rocks, its steel armor—dirty brown like the spit of a grasshopper—torn off as if it had been cloth. It was now just a scrap heap of metal, haphazardly discarded at the foot of Kalegediği.
The Americans, accustomed to such crashes and their documentation, expertly examined the wreckage for a while in a most matter-of-fact manner. They filmed it. Then they started to work in earnest, each with a task of his own. While a pilot and the officer in charge of pre-flight inspection busied themselves with individual examinations of the wreckage, the lieutenant colonel began to describe the landscape and dictate his impressions to a recording device in his hand.
Villagers brought in one of the pilot’s black flight-boots—the kind that zipped from the inside—that one of them had found. A half-burnt foot of the pilot remained inside. Pulling on his plastic gloves, the doctor began to examine the foot. Shouting out what sounded to the villagers like “Çörm, çörm!” (“Germs, germs!”), he immediately motioned back the curious crowd gathering round him. One of the pilot’s eyes was found by another villager examining the debris. Not burnt and still full of its water, it was spherical, as round as round could be. The doctor immediately separated it for examination as well. He disinfected it. Then he put it into a special self-sealing bag of various synthetic fibers including nylon and firmly closed the mouth. The black box recording the communications between the pilot and the airbase during flight was not to be found anywhere. Who knows what mountain crevice it might have fallen into and disappeared?
For a while the Americans also discussed the parachute that hadn’t opened. The unopened parachute seemed very important to them.
Ready to leave, they handed over all the raincoats, oilcloth, cables, wire, nylon sheeting, picks, shovels and hammers they’d brought with them to the villagers. They shook hands with the villagers one by one. Then they walked back down to the helicopter.
The remains of their comrade, the pilot who’d been whisking the tons of this spy plane from mountain to mountain, from one climate to another, were now small enough to fit into a tiny nylon bag. The “coffin” of the pilot, containing one half-burnt foot and a single eye, was now the tiny bag in the commander’s hand.
The helicopter that had landed at Kalegediği with five people soon took off with six.
For months the debris of the plane remained at Kalegediği. Storms blew over it; the snows buried it. Then came the threatening black clouds of April. For days the heavens poured rain down upon the Taurus. The snows melted. The waters mingled. Water flowed everywhere. The tiniest streams gave off rumbling tumbling roars.
Among the villagers who ran to help when the crash occurred was Ustahmet, Ahmet the Master Craftsman, an excellent blacksmith—a true usta. His mastery of ironworking was pronounced before his name, Usta Ahmet; his ironwork was that of the old traditional forges. Around the black wooden trough in which he slaked the iron, white mushrooms would sometimes sprout. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. To indicate the soundness of any commodity, the villagers would say, “Like the work of Ustahmet!” They’d say, “Rather than choosing a friend from among the peddlers or the sellers of cheap perfumes, choose one the likes of Ustahmet!” Because being the friend of a smithy like Ustahmet meant being luckier than a merchant with ten camels and eight loads.
Ustahmet was a short, green-eyed, bald-headed man. Wielding the hammer since an early age had left him stunted. There was not a hair on his head. Standing summer and winter in that coal dust and sweat, face to face with the roaring fire and the red-hot iron, who could keep from balding?
Apprentices work with Ahmet. He has no need to recruit them himself; the villagers voluntarily bring in their sons to hand over to him. If Ahmet takes on their son as an apprentice, they’re just as pleased as if they’d found the ideal husband as a match for their daughter. For with Ustahmet, their sons will wear leather aprons, make friends with the anvil and the hammer, and learn to understand the language of the coal, the roaring fire and the red-hot iron. They’ll learn how to fan the fire with the bellows. Not everybody can use the bellows. You have to fan as if you were blowing with your own breath; you must never frighten the fire. You must pump sometimes gently, sometimes hard, to bring the iron to the proper heat. Ustahmet uses bellows with a double body and double nozzles. You have to start with the second pleated body before the breath of the first dies down; mastery of the bellows is understood by the flame on the hearth and your control over the glow of the embers. Thus after working with Ustahmet for thirteen or fourteen years their sons would be known as master craftsmen, too. After that it’s easy. What else does a blacksmith have to do besides work and earn his livelihood? His calling will not die. Ironworking is as old as shepherding. Its beginning harks clear back to the Prophet David. He served as the mastermind for all the smithies in the world. Using one of his hands as his tongs, his fist as the hammer, his knees as the anvil and his breath as the bellows… One day when David had placed the incandescent iron on his knee and was beating it with his fist, his wife spoke up. “Ey Davut, is this a miracle of my doing or of yours?"
"What a question! Of course it’s mine," David replied.
His wife insisted, "No, it’s mine!" Tripped up by this not yours, but mine, his wife suddenly declared, “You’ll see, Ey Davut!” and rolling her sleeves up to her elbows, approached the forge. As soon as she grasped the incandescent iron, however, it seared her hand. She shrieked. David felt very sorry for his wife. He wanted her to forge, too, if that was what she wanted. He thought long and hard. Later, inspired by the front paws of his dog crossed upon the floor before the forge where it lay fast asleep, he created tongs—and looking at his knees, he created the anvil, and looking at his fist, the hammer; these he presented to his wife.
"Take these,” he offered. “Since this is your wish, may it be granted. From now on, you may shape the iron, too!"
Ustahmet never treads upon a piece of coal. He lifts the coal from the floor, kisses it and touches it to his forehead as if it were a piece of bread. “That’s my dinner table!” he objects if anyone attempts to sit upon his anvil. In his workshop he never raises his voice—nor lets anyone else do so. He allows no one to swear in his atelier. He protects his coal with the sensitivity of the farmer to his wheat, of the shepherd to his herd. Before approaching the forge, he wipes his anvil with his hand and kisses it; then taking his hammer in his hand, he begins his work, declaring "Ya Allah! Ya Davud!"
Once spring came and the roads were cleared of snow, Ustahmet set off for Kalegediği with his apprentices. In their hands were tongs, hammers and sledgehammers, picks and shovels. First they gathered all the scraps of metal scattered around that seemed to be of use. Those pieces that were strong but light in contrast to the ordinary iron they knew. Cling, cling! Ustahmet checked out the fuselage, knocking on it with his hammer. “We’ll need a great deal of fire!" he declared, "a great deal!"
Kalegediği was famous for its resinous pine. The apprentices gathered all the resinous logs, wood and roots they could find. They piled them one on the top of the other over the wreckage. Then they kindled a raging bonfire. The sturdy resinous logs blazed brightly. They burnt for a whole day and a whole night. Over the red-hot russet embers, parts of the plane melted, dripping to the ground. Cables and wires appeared one by one. Nuts and bolts were shed like leaves. The fuselage and the engine refused to cooperate, however. They turned to jet black coal and sooty scrap.
Ustahmet and his apprentices separated as much as they could with the iron tongs, hammers and chisels at hand. They cut. They sorted. They gathered. Then on the backs of asses and mules they carried this scrap metal down to their village. That took two or three days. Just as raindrops slowly, slowly collect and flow from one place to another—or as ants bite by bite, mouthful by mouthful, remove all the flesh from the skin of a dead snake and carry it off.
Then Ustahmet kissed his anvil and took his hammer in hand. He kindled his fire.
“Ya Allah! Ya Davud!”
With his double-bodied bellows he pumped air onto the fire. He heaped up the coal. The hotter the flames burned, the more coal they devoured. Day and night the fire raged; the chimney puffed out smoke. Day and night the sound of the flaring bellows whined throughout the village. Each scrap from the plane was carried from forge to anvil, from anvil to forge, as a red ember in the mouths of the simple and practical black iron tongs. Turned over and over again, each was beaten into shape upon the anvil.
With a tik-taka, tik-taka of his small hammer, Ustahmet would show his apprentices where to target their blows. A true usta would not speak much while forging. The hammer in his hand served as his mouth and tongue. Whatever he had to say, he’d tell his apprentices with his hammer, showing them just where to strike.
The village resounded with the lively tempo of the low and high-pitched blows of hammers on the anvil. It was no easy task to free this aluminum alloy from the molds that gigantic presses had given it, to reshape it by striking and striking again and again. It was a challenge of challenges. At each blow the piece in the mouth of the tongs would sing out with a pure and clear “Cling!” Taking a very fine marble powder they call “rock salt,” pinch by pinch Ustahmet sprinkled it over the glowing iron. Each sprinkling formed a layer on the exterior of the metal piece. While feeding the fire, that layer also protected and nourished the metal. For the metal heated without rock salt would melt away completely. Finally, the metal became malleable. Pieces that were short would become longer, and those that were thick become thinner. With enough blows of the hammer, they’d stretch flat as a sheet. Turned over and over again on the anvil, becoming lither and lither, little by little they’d take on a shape. They became plowshares, became adzes and sickles. Scythes, saws for trimming trees, axes, meat cleavers... Some even became lighters to kindle the tinder. “Real Ustahmet çelik!” said those seeing the lighter. “This steel of his ignites the tinder with one single click.”
Hammering some pieces over and over again, Ustahmet beat them paper-thin, then bent and rolled them into a belly-shape, and inserted a rivet at the top. Then fastened a tongue inside the belly… Thus there were bells even. Large and small camel’s bells, sheep’s bells, goat’s and kid’s bells... Those bells wrought sound, brought sound to the necks of the tribes’ flocks, singing ding-a-ling. Those rings would mingle in the clear pure air of the Taurus. They still do.
And that long, endless journey of the iron that began in the mines, stretching onward from there to the huge iron and steel mills, and from there flying high into the sky, finally reached a completely new rebirth in the hands of Ustahmet. And this without the need of a hundred or a thousand years of technology. A few months were more than enough. That pirate-faced mass of a steel plane that years before had helped bomb Vietnam and some seven or eight months ago had been shaking the blue skies of the Taurus with its resounding moaning and groaning drone had returned to the simple sedentary era at the hands of Ustahmet.
As the blade of the poor Taurus villager’s primitive plow, pulled along by a pair of oxen, it broke the ground. It assured the sprouting of the seeds strewn by the handful in the plowed and undulating earth...